For Paul Newman’s 98th birthday, his lost cinematic masterpiece
Editor’s Note: Paul Newman would have celebrated his 98th birthday today. To commemorate that date, we’re taking another look at this essay about the Anton Chekhov film he directed on the stage of a Yiddish theater.
Paul Newman directed a pioneering, independent film shot at a Yiddish theater on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and you’ve probably never heard of it, much less had a chance to see it.
It was never released beyond a short run, in 1962, for an Oscar nomination that it never got. Newman’s biographers apparently have never seen it or been sure of its fate. Lionel Godfrey, in his 1979 book “Paul Newman, Superstar,” seemed pained to call it “the only Paul Newman film of any kind that the present author has not seen,” and “a lost movie.”
But the film, based on a bleakly lyrical Anton Chekhov play called “On the Harmfulness of Tobacco,” has resurfaced. The Turner Classic Movies channel plans to air it for the first time, early next year, according to Charles Tabesh, TCM’s senior vice president of programming and production. “I was drawn to it very quickly,” Tabesh said. “That Paul Newman directed it makes it very interesting to us. But if you were to credit anything with the way it draws you in, you must credit Michael Strong’s intriguing performance.”
Strong was a lesser-known fellow actor whom Newman made the star of his film. After seeing him perform the one-act Chekhov monologue at the Actors Studio in 1959, Newman was so captivated that he decided it must be shared. Strong began life as Cecil Natapoff, the son of Russian-Jewish parents who immigrated to New York. He grew up in the Bronx and got his performing start on Yiddish radio.
Working in theater, film and TV, Strong had a career that many actors would envy. He became a founding member of the exclusive Actors Studio and had smaller parts in well-known films, including “Patton” and “The Great Santini.” Elia Kazan gave him supporting or ensemble roles, twice in premieres of plays by Arthur Miller. Many more famous friends and colleagues — Kirk Douglas, Karl Malden — regarded Strong as an actor’s actor — and it’s hard not to wonder if he might have joined their ranks if this film had been released.
Strong, Newman and most other people tied to the 25-minute movie are gone, but a few survive. Their memories and archival records have led me through the making of Newman’s lost film, his mysterious decision to abandon it, and how it passed from hand to hand.
The saga includes an 86-year-old Holocaust survivor and film director, his much-younger, Russian-born Chekhov-loving fiancée, a dying actor’s wish, a friend of Allen Ginsberg, a one-line New York Times review, and the deep, dark closets in New York, Los Angeles and Paris, where the coffee-colored, bruised-looking box holding the film languished for more than 50 years.
I learned of the film from Jack Garfein, the survivor-director, whom I met one day on upper Broadway, and who revealed that, in his apartment, he had the only print of an abandoned Paul Newman film. I showed a DVD made from his print to people I hoped might have clues about its story. Newman’s survivors, despite three attempts through a family spokesperson, would not talk to me.
But others I contacted were responsive, including the Oscar-winning actress Lee Grant — the stage name for Lyova Haskell Rosenthal — who acted with Strong and knew both him and Newman as fellow members of the Actors Studio. She didn’t know that the film existed until I told her about it.
“It’s beautiful,” Grant said after we watched it on a wide-screen TV in her art-filled Upper West Side apartment, beneath a shelf displaying several Emmys and her two Oscars (for her performance in “Shampoo” and as the director of a documentary, “Down and Out in America”). “Doing work like this is why we got into the theater,” she added, saying that the film embodied the artistic ideal pursued by her and her fellow members of the Actors Studio: the priority of exploring the dramatic possibilities of human truth. “That’s the word for it — explore” she exclaimed joyously.
A BROADWAY MEETING
In the 1960s, when I grew up, Newman was such a given part of the cultural landscape that I never thought of him much. I had an uncle from Cleveland, and once heard that he’d known Newman’s Jewish father, Arthur Newman, who ran a sporting goods store there. Newman’s mother was a Catholic raised in Europe, but her son’s role as the Jewish independence warrior Ari-Ben Canaan in “Exodus” cemented his Jewish tie for many viewers. My favorite Newman film, hands down, is “The Verdict.” I remember going on a date with my future wife and seeing him play a middle-aged lawyer who skirts the fatal edge of disappointment.
Otherwise, the closest I came to the star was using salad dressings bearing his face, until I went to Barzini’s market on the Upper West Side last October to shop for fruit. I paused on the sidewalk to talk with Iraj Abde, the owner, and he pointed to an elderly man making his way toward us with a kind of floating walk, a white fedora tilted above his pale, dream-enveloped face. Iraj, a Persian-born Jew, said, in his deep voice, “This is Jack Garfein, a film director and survivor of concentration camps.”
Garfein looked up at me, barely leaving his dreamy thoughts, and Iraj told him I wrote pieces for the Forward. I asked what camps he’d survived, and he put short fingers to his square chin, stroking it in musing silence. In a soft voice that dared me to believe him, he noted, “I was in 11 concentration camps.”
It sounded like something you’d hear in a bar, yet I felt the tug of reality. I asked what films he’d directed, and he named “Something Wild.” Amazingly, I’d chanced on the last half of the film on late-night TV not long before. Featuring a dynamic score by Aaron Copland, the film made plausible, then powerful, the story of a rape victim who tries to commit suicide and forms a romantic bond with the mentally disabled man who stops her.
Garfein and I had another chance encounter, at Columbia University, where he told me The Criterion Collection would be bringing out its DVD of “Something Wild” in January 2017. After we met for the third time, he let on about having the Newman film, adding that he’d known Newman and the film’s star. I asked if I could see it, and he sent an e-mail inviting me to his apartment. By then, I’d Googled Garfein and knew that he had a (very) long career and a (very) complicated life. He was a twice-divorced father of four, having two children with each woman; both of his wives were actresses. He had lived extensively in New York and Paris. His first wife was Carroll Baker, the blonde-haired actress-turned-sex goddess who won acclaim in the film “Baby Doll.” Garfein directed Baker as the rape victim who discovers tenderness in “Something Wild.”
Soon, I was sitting in a cozy one-bedroom apartment whose walls bore posters of plays and films Garfein directed, along with several photos of Copland conducting his score for “Something Wild,” and a drawing by playwright Sean O’Casey for Garfein’s 1958 production on Broadway of O’Casey’s “The Shadow of a Gunman.” The New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson praised him for bringing the work to “such vivid life.”
Garfein invited me to sit next to him before his wide-screen TV as he inserted a disc of “On the Harmfulness of Tobacco” into his DVD player.
Next to us, a worn brown film box with black canvas straps leaned against a wall.
I asked, “Is that the print?”
He nodded and said, “Yes, and what you will see now, few others have seen in 50 years.”
There was a countdown on the screen of old movie-style numbers flashing decreasing numbers, 10 to 1, and then the credits began to roll, bright letters against a dark background. The name “Michael Strong” appeared, laid over a still image of his bothered-looking face in character — my first sight of him or his name. The black-and-white print, I noticed, had a watery clarity as it moved to its first scene of Strong as a 19th-century-looking guy walking in a dark suit and stovepipe hat.
He wore a distracted look, a thin goatee (messier than Chekhov’s in late-age photos), and led a small, leashed dog up the sidewalk of a dark street. Music that mixed sadness with comic sparkle sounded as the dog peed on the fellow’s shoe; undaunted, stopping in front of a theater, Strong’s character found his name was misspelled on a poster; he corrected it with scratches of his pencil: Ivan Ivanovich Nyukhin.
He hooked the dog’s leash on a pole, descended spiral stairs and was soon onstage, standing in the merciless glare of spotlights, giving what began as a lecture on the dangers of tobacco — “though I myself smoke” — and unraveled into halting sentence fragments. Strong’s performance moved through moments of deep thought, expressive intensity and sudden shifts to new subjects: “In 30 years without stopping… I might even say to the injury of my health… I have been working on matters of a strictly scientific… well, not precisely scientific contributions… by the way, if you don’t mind my saying so… they are in the scientific line….”
He told us his wife had directed him to give this talk. I had read a version of the play, and I knew it showed the musings of a henpecked husband, a tirade against a domineering wife, but on screen I could see it was going deeper than that.
Nyukhin lurched in and out of moods, yielded to long silences, then confessed: “I’m a failure at everything… a fool, a nonentity.”
It is a sort of pathetic, this film, I thought, but then Strong flipped Nyukhin’s despair into laugh out-loud, really quirky humor. As a writer, I was moved by the grim exactitude and almost submerged lyricism with which the character referred to writing and speaking, his tendency to lose and find his way repeatedly. This was the harmfulness of drift, after his long-term sentence as a submissive husband. “Oh, how I long not to remember — how I long to tear off this coat, which 33 years ago I wore at my wedding,” he said. Then, he tells us what he does when he’s not giving talks that his wife assigns: “I take my wife’s pet dog for a walk. I exterminate bugs…. I catch mice.”
Someone in the film’s audience laughed at this. I laughed. I noticed it was a woman’s laughter out beyond the stage. Chekhov had made him a kind ofactor, and I sensed that Strong and Newman had made him seem more of one.
His arias of reflection, pleas for oblivion — “I want nothing… nothing… only to rest… rest” — peaked as he recalled his wife’s mocking name for him: “the scarecrow.” Saying the words, Strong twisted himself into a tortured-looking, almost Christ-like figure. His eyes turned up, showing how the scarecrow he imagined stared into the “wide sky” and gave in to the stillness.
Soon she stood behind him, the wife, a looming shadow. Feeling her presence, Nyukhin found complete sentences at last, and wrapped up his talk. The house lights came on, and I gasped: No one was there, no one in the whole theater of empty seats. Nyukhin’s eyes glistened, as he peered into that void. He’d poured out his heart to people who hadn’t stayed. I realized that this film that had gone for decades without finding an audience showed, as its cumulative image, a performer coping with the pain of an absent audience. I also knew that Newman had taken a risk by framing that theatrical emptiness, which Chekhov’s play did not include.
There followed quick scenes in which Nyukhin heard his wife’s fingers snapping hard behind him, and he turned and scurried after her out to the street, where she lifted the dog back into his arms.
Garfein’s screen went dark.
“That’s it,” he said. “Amazing, no?”
It really was, for reasons that I slowly formed into thoughts: for Chekhov’s words of poetry strung through voids, which reminded me of Samuel Beckett’s work; for lighting that evoked German Expressionist films; for the depth-charge impact of the acting. Marlon Brando admirers extol his way of filling moments in time, never “telegraphing” where he’s going. Strong had felt his way through the time in this piece with an unusual, thoughtful delicacy.
Garfein talked to his empty screen as if to Newman’s ghost: “Jeez, Paul, crazy! Really nuts! What a great thing you did.”
A frequent coach of acting, he mused in his light European accent that “what great actors do is send out images.” He spoke of how Strong “becomes the scarecrow. It’s a living experience.” And Garfein said Newman “didn’t push himself on the performance.” In fact, the open approach he sensed that Newman used with Strong reminded him of Elia Kazan: “As Kazan said to me: ‘Jack, we are just guides.’”
Steve Vineberg, in “Method Actors,” his searching history of modern American acting, called “Long Days Journey Into Night” “a high point in the history of theater on film.” In the past half-hour, I felt sure, I’d seen another.
Garfein, reluctantly, let me have a copy of the DVD, though it took a promise that I wouldn’t put it on the internet. With his treasure in my hands, I started my Paul Newman lost film road show, sharing the film first with Grant, then with the theater director Gregory Mosher, whose long career has included directing the plays of David Mamet.
Mosher watched it with me in his Upper West Side apartment, which was crammed with countless books on theater and film — I noticed one called “An Ideal Theater” — and talked about Chekhov. “Before Chekhov, if you were in love, you said, ‘I’m in love.’ After Chekhov, you could say, ‘Do you like the oranges?’ Strong, he said, showed a “powerful” instinct for Chekhov’s indirection, for “subtexts” of buried feeling. He wondered whether Newman’s lighting, extremes of bright and dark, was “very bold or a mistake.”
Laura Collins-Hughes, a journalist friend who reviews theater for The New York Times, called it “a fiercely quiet film.” She said a lot of Chekhov productions turn dry from “too much reverence,” but this one “feels lived in.”
All my viewers asked how the film got made and how Jack Garfein wound up with it.
A FILM IS BORN
The story began in a stolid, 1859 building, a former Seventh Associate Presbyterian Church, on West 44th Street. It still feels, behind its red-brick walls and white-painted wood door, like a kind of church, though one door inside leads to the Paul Newman Library, another to an intimate theater.
This is the Actors Studio, and the theater is where its members have long met in so-called “sessions” with their peers. Marilyn Monroe and Newman (who served as the studio’s president in the 1980s) sat in this theater, as well as Eli Wallach, Jean Stapleton and Julie Harris. Theater people still sharpen their skills here. It’s the home of the Method, really several acting methods inspired by Constantin Stanislavski, founding director of the Moscow Art Theatre. Stanislavski’s eyes were opened to new approaches when he became the first director of Chekhov’s plays.
Studio actors take on all sorts of plays, but they have had a special regard for Chekhov’s unique interplay between human surfaces and the webs of purpose that lie beneath. The playwright gave birth to a new kind of drama, for which Stanislavsky sought a new way of acting. It used psychology and analysis of actors’ inner lives to shape their characters. That focus filtered into the American Method.
Founded in 1947, the studio remains a members-only place. Elia Kazan, widely regarded as the master director of midcentury America, led sessions until the early 1950s. As he got busier, Lee Strasberg, who drew criticism for overstressing an actor’s use of private emotions — and for his controlling nature — dominated.
In 1955 — the year the studio moved to the church — photojournalist Eve Arnold took a picture of Newman. Though she took many celebrity photographs, Arnold also focused on hard social realities. She clearly posed Newman for this picture, Brando-like in white T-shirt, against a room full of actors in duller clothes. He was in the public eye already, having gotten his first stage break in 1953, in William Inge’s “Picnic.” He’d gotten his Hollywood start in the widely disparaged 1954 epic “The Silver Chalice.”
The 30-year-old actor wasn’t yet anywhere as famous as he’d soon become — Paul Newman and his blue eyes. A person I know, who’s in a position to know, told me that, as he lay in a hospital, dying of lung cancer, he wore sunglasses because hospital personnel kept taking advantage of his captive state to walk in and stare at those sapphire eyes.
Arnold’s photo also asks a silent question about what will happen to the unfamous, hard-working actors behind him in the rows of the theater. A number of these Actors Studio actors were honored in their time, but their names have faded. How many people today remember Rudy Bond (even though Kazan cast him in smaller roles in films, including “A Streetcar Named Desire”)?
Or Salem Ludwig? Or Vivian Nathan?
Or Michael Strong, sitting just behind Newman?
Looking amused, with loose dark hair, Strong was one of the studio’s original members. At just a little taller than 5 foot 10 inches, he had a masculine softness he lent to the sleepy-eyed, goofy charm of a cat burglar in Sidney Kingsley’s powerful police drama, “Detective Story.” It was a small part that made a sharp impression. He’d acted in the long-running Broadway play in 1949, and appeared in the 1951 screen hit directed by William Wyler. He’d changed his name, as many Jewish actors once did, searching for assimilated success in a time when American life still closed many doors to Jews.
Strong had won parts in some of the early live TV series that Newman had done. He’d been on “The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse,” a showcase for young actors in the “golden age” of live TV. When he appeared in series with titles like “Danger,” and “Suspense,” he was admired for extracting feeling from the smallest gesture.
In 1958, Strong got cast as Aaron, the brother of Moses, in “The Firstborn,” a play about the prophet commissioned to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Israel’s birth as a state. Katharine Cornell, still a leading actress of the American stage, starred as the biblical brothers’ mother. Anthony Quayle was Moses. Strong never lost his pride of touring Israel with the play after its Broadway run.
Being an actor typically means adapting to roles in which one is cast. Actors Studio members chose parts that nourished artistic growth, and Strong cast himself in “On the Harmfulness of Tobacco.” Over several studio sessions, in the summer of 1959, he put on the emotional skin of Ivan Nyukhin.
Patricia Bosworth is a longtime member of the Actors Studio who has written “The Men in My Life,” a forthcoming memoir about her path through this era. It doesn’t mention Strong, but Bosworth told me in an interview that she knew him at the studio and he was “very strong” but also “very gentle.” She noted that he’d been working with Kazan since the 1940s, and was “a very striking-looking man and very kind to all of us younger actors.”
His work on the Chekhov piece riveted others at the studio, including Strasberg, Bosworth said. Garfein was watching those summer days. He’d become, at 29, so highly regarded as a director with the Actors Studio — his work onstage and in movies included giving Ben Gazzara his film debut in “The Strange One” — that Bosworth called him “almost Strasberg’s protégé.”
Newman was there, a star who’d struggled for years to find a balance between his Actors Studio idea of himself and the lures of Hollywood.
This push-pull was seen by Howard Thompson of The New York Times, who’d panned Newman in the film “The Left Handed Gun”: “Poor Mr. Newman seems to be auditioning alternately for the Moscow Art Players and the Grand Ole Opry.”
He’d given the boxer Rocky Graziano in “Somebody Up There Likes Me” an Actors Studio grittiness, but had himself called a more recent film, “The Young Philadelphians,” a “glorified cosmopolitan soap opera.” Biographer Shawn Levy wrote that Newman was unhappy with roles he was getting and wanted to be paid more for doing them.
So, Newman returned to New York and was preparing to appear in Williams’s “Sweet Bird of Youth,” directed by Kazan, while attending sessions at the Actors Studio. Bosworth was in the room when Newman watched Strong develop “On the Harmfulness of Tobacco.” Like others, she said, he was “enthralled.”
He’d long wanted to test his skills as a director, a goal since college, and settled on this play with this actor.
Strong would one day tell an interviewer that actors “have to create their own projects” that embody their sense of creative integrity: “One drop of ocean is still the ocean, and one moment of truth in the theater is still theater.”
To make his film a cup of that truth, Newman reached out to up-and-coming craftsmen such as Arnold Ornitz, who shot the film as his director of photography, and who would later shoot “Serpico” and “The Chosen.” He hired production designer Richard Sylbert who had designed Kazan’s “Baby Doll.”
Newman had been onstage for months in Kazan’s production of “Sweet Bird of Youth” when he went to work on his film.
It was Kazan who referred Newman to the young composer David Amram for the film’s music, Amram told me. He’d written the incidental score for Kazan’s staging of Archibald MacLeish’s play “J.B.,” which won the 1959 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
Amram, who just turned 86, still composes and conducts with the energy befitting a musician who played jazz French horn with Charlie Parker in 1952. He wears one of the world’s most distinctive musical necklaces, a rattling mass (when he walks) of who knows how many penny whistles, miniature flutes, kazoos and charms from all over the world. He has curly gray hair and an easy smile, and strides as if, in his mind, he’s already passed the place he’s going and has moved on to somewhere else.
It’s pure coincidence that I found him in the middle of this story. I’ve known Amram for years, and once wrote about the music he composed for another film. He’s a crosser of art world borders, was working with the photographer Robert Frank, and writer friends Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg on the legendary Beat film “Pull My Daisy” when Newman recruited him for “On the Harmfulness of Tobacco.”
He told me in a recent interview that he was in his apartment on Sixth Avenue at 11th Street when “Paul Newman called me and said, ‘David, I’ve never made a film and I’m making one, and I’d like you to do the music. You know what we’re trying to do at the studio.’ Paul wanted to be an artist. He didn’t want to be another celebrity egomaniac.”
He scored it for bassoon and two violas, “and myself playing piano and percussion,” he said, explaining his urge to grasp the “spare feeling” of the play. “By the way,” he added, “Paul loved Chekhov.”
Newman adapted Chekhov’s stage direction that his play take place “on a rostrum in a provincial club” to the stage of the Orpheum, in the Yiddish theater district along Second Avenue.
As Newman got ready to shoot his film, Howard Thompson, the same New York Times writer who’d noted his split personality in “The Left Handed Gun,” interviewed him. Newman spoke of his joy in Strong’s work, adding that the film’s creators were being paid “a minimum.”
He noted “enthusiastic” exchanges among collaborators — “friends,” he said — who had “discarded about a thousand ideas.” He told Thompson that although some friends said he was “crazy” to make a film from “one person in a monologue,” he felt confident. It was, he said, an “emotional commitment,” not “a binding legal one.”
If the film was disappointing, he said, “we’ll burn it.”
In such comments, one can hear subtexts of inner conflict — Chekhovian, one might say —about a film on which he said he was spending $22,000 — about $180,000 today.
The play that drew him had drawn Chekhov twice: First in 1886, when he wrote it as one of the jokey “vaudevilles” he made at the start of his career; then again in 1902, as a married man, two years before his long-endured tuberculosis ended his life. In English, the piece covers about seven pages, with few stage directions.
Strong grew up in a home where he heard Russian and possibly spoke some, and where Chekhov was probably read in Russian and possibly Yiddish. In 1903, the year Michael Strong’s family fled pogroms in Russia for New York, a dying Chekhov wrote to Sholem Aleichem, donating to him the rights for a Yiddish translation of his complete works to benefit the victims of the Kishinev pogrom. Irving Howe has written about the passion for Russian writers that many secular Russian Jews brought with them to America, for Chekhov especially, describing him as “almost a Jewish writer.”
I believe Strong and Newman may have adapted their script from a 1954 translation by Avrahm Yarmolinsky, a Russian-Jewish émigré who then oversaw the Slavic section of the New York Public Library. Yarmolinsky wrote that he did his Chekhov work in part to stress the humanity of Russian culture amid the Soviet Union’s inhumanity. His translation, which he asserted to be the first in English, appeared soon after Joseph Stalin had died, not long after his last anti-Semitic purges. The world was watching to see how much would change under Nikita Khrushchev.
Newman and Strong aren’t known to have had political motives, but Cold War politics framed the times. I find it hard to believe that the son of Arthur Newman, coming of age in an Actors Studio that Patricia Bosworth told me was “like a Jewish family,” wouldn’t sense the Jewish feeling for Chekhov that surrounded him.
When he visited the set, Amram recalled, he noticed that Newman “used a lot of sensitivity to bring out the best in people. He’d talk to them, get them to think about what they were doing. Kazan did that.”
“There was the opening scene with the little dog on the street. Paul did this over and over. He cared about the timing of that little scene, which they shot out of doors.”
Amram noted “how reinforcing” Newman was with Strong, “encouraging him” to find his own best way to his part, adding, “Paul went out of his way to treat the sound men, the camera men, with respect.”
The filming took five October days on the Lower East Side, and one faded photograph shows Newman standing in a sailor’s cap, sipping coffee, watching as a make-up artist combed the goatee Strong wore as Nyukhin.
When the shoot finished, Newman leaned over a desk in Amram’s apartment, toward a Moviola machine on which they turned the finished print beneath a lens, back and forth, matching sound to images. Amram recalls his work on “every image,” fitting chords to the moment Strong’s character lifted his chin to sing a hymn, or adding a sharp viola note to underscore a flash of the man’s anger.
One of the two violists was Midhat Serbagi, an old army friend of Amram’s. Midhat had a brother, Roger Serbagi, a young actor. The Serbagi brothers spent an afternoon drinking Budweisers with Newman as he and Amram worked at the Moviola, and that memory stays with them today.
“I told him I wanted to be an actor, and he said great, was very encouraging,” Roger Serbagi told me. He said that Newman hired him for a small part in “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds.” Roger Serbagi recalled: “I asked him, ‘Do you remember me from that afternoon at David’s?’ And he said, ‘Yeah, I remember you.’”
Newman followers generally don’t count “On the Harmfulness of Tobacco” among the Newman-directed films, saying there are six, listing “Rachel, Rachel” as his first. Film historians care about such things, and I imagine that the new chance to see the rediscovered film may prompt them to add it to the list and count as seven the number of films that Newman made behind the camera.
Amram confirmed my sense that Newman consciously made his film outside the Hollywood studio system, perhaps even in defiance of it. The composer said he sensed how intently the star sought to probe the intimacies of theater with the powers of film, at a time when doing that was part of a high-minded populism in the early years of TV. Just a year later, Michael Strong worked as the bartender Chuck in Sidney Lumet’s hauntingly lucid TV version of Eugene O’Neil’s “The Iceman Cometh.” Newman worked with his 1950s-rooted theater-meets-film mode until “The Glass Menagerie,” his last directing effort.
Meanwhile, Midhat Serbagi recalled seeing the Chekhov film, when Newman showed it to the creative team, and loving it. Amram remembers “some little screening room,” midtown, and said he watched with pride how the project had turned into “a Hollywood film but not by Hollywood.”
“Exodus” soon claimed Newman’s attention, getting mixed reviews in 1961. That year, Strong had a role next to Zero Mostel and Eli Wallach in Eugene Ionesco’s darkly absurdist “Rhinoceros.” It was also the year when “Something Wild,” Garfein’s allegory of hard-bitten renewal, appeared; Newman won acclaim for his acting in “The Hustler,” about the brutal price a pool shark pays for a changed life.
The next January, with the Kennedy administration in its second year, Newman rented two movie houses, the Baronet in New York and the CinemaTheatre in L.A..— for a short period (just how long, I couldn’t determine). Why he took three years to make his move for the film, no one I’ve talked to knows. A New York Times film critic named A.H. Weiler stopped by the long-gone Baronet on East 59th Street and wrote a full-length review of “Murder She Said,” an Agatha Christie mystery, and added a one-line rave of the “top-flight, one-man tour de force by Michael Strong” in Newman’s film.
Advertisements quoting the review ran in Variety and in The Hollywood Reporter, asking Academy Award judges to see Strong in his starring role.
Strong was already 41 when Newman focused on him across the 25 minutes and 30 seconds of the Chekhov adaptation. For decades, his friend Karl Malden and others had hoped he’d get such a chance at star-level attention. “I hope to God your break comes soon,” Kirk Douglas had written him in a letter a decade earlier.
Surely, this might be Strong’s late break. Others sensed it. The esteemed Broadway writer-actor Howard Lindsey wrote him after seeing the Newman film: “We hope it wins an Oscar.”
But it didn’t happen.
All I know about what followed comes from Garfein, who was in Paris at the time. He says Strong called him long distance, distraught that Newman had met him in a Greenwich Village cafe, handed him the film print and said he’d wiped his name from the credits. He’d work no more to get it seen.
“I remember the pain in his voice,” Garfein recalled. “He said, ‘I have really terrible news. Paul took his name off the film. He handed me the film, and told me, Mike, it’s yours now. Do what you want with it.’
“This wasn’t just a role to [Strong]. He felt he’d put his whole life into this film. He worried that nobody would ever see it. Because Paul had turned it down, he felt he wouldn’t get distribution. Who’d want it now?”
THE HARMFULNESS OF ABANDONMENT
Just what pulled Newman away from his film? Biographers give hints. One wrote, without naming a source, that it disappointed him. Another suggested that his wife, actress Joanne Woodward, discouraged him from releasing it. “My wife must have thought I was on dope,” Newman says in an unsourced footnote in Shawn Levy’s biography “Paul Newman: A Life,” which also quotes Newman as calling the film “the best creative experience I ever had.”
“I think he couldn’t find a distributor for it,” Garfein speculated. But short films were shown theatrically then. Joanne Woodward might have been able to say what happened next, but I’ve been told she’s ill. And, Newmans’ three daughters showed no interest in talking to me.
Strong’s two children did speak with me, though. Paul Strong, born in 1942, is a retired literature professor and Hemingway scholar; Ellen Strong, his sister, was born in 1955 and is a social worker. They sustain their father’s memory with clear affection and informed pride in his career. Paul Strong admitted to me that he had visited the set of “On the Harmfulness of Tobacco,” but not to watch his father act. “I wanted to meet Paul Newman,” he said.
The film became something of a family legend. The siblings held on to memories of it, and can describe parts in detail. Paul Strong believes he attended the New York showing in 1962. His sister says her father screened it privately for her at least once. She recounted, with a laugh, “That dog — and that he never really talks about tobacco.”
Paul Strong spoke of growing up with his actor-father and a mother, the former Theda Kropf, who studied acting with Strong at Brooklyn College in the 1930s but became a kindergarten teacher. The couple later taught theater together at Camp Unity, a left-leaning interracial summer camp for adults in upstate Wingdale, New York.
Once married, they lived in the Richmond Hill section of Queens, where Paul Strong said he grew up among other theater families. He spoke of grandparents from whom he heard Russian and Yiddish. Paul recalled his father in bed in the mornings, still wearing make-up from nights onstage, and said his father funded his son’s wish to attend a small, private liberal arts college — which no one in the family had done — with an especially lucrative acting stretch in the spring of 1959, Paul Strong’s senior year in high school.
Michael Strong understudied Jack Klugman in the role of Herbie in the hit musical “Gypsy,” and had a regular part in “The Edge of Night,” a soap opera. His son went to Colby College, where he met his future wife and studied literature with an analytical focus that he says was “very different from how my father got to his characters.
“I don’t think of my father as an introspective man. I think of him as a method actor. I know he learned a lot at the Actors Studio, from Kazan and Strasberg. He was serious about his craft. But he was very intuitive about how he would do a role.”
Ellen Strong, on the phone from her home near San Francisco, said her father’s reserve sometimes cracked and she could glimpse his pain from the rejection-acceptance rollercoaster of an actor’s life. “Every time he finished a job, he worried he’d never get another,” she said. In a rare interview focused on him, Strong once told a reporter: “To be a working actor, you must have the soul of an angel and the skin of a rhinoceros.”
Paul Strong’s two grown children, Amy and Michael, were close to their grandfather, and knew he’d made a film with Paul Newman. They’d seen the film box, but grew up without seeing the film.
None of Michael Strong’s offspring doubts that the day in January 1962 when Newman handed him the film was devastating.
Still, he must have sensed trouble already, and the Oscar showing may have been a Hail Mary pass for a project that needed allies. In late 1961, Strong — possibly at Newman’s urging — made one more effort to try to save the film.
ADVICE FROM THE ARCHIVES
There’s a single archival box identified as “The Michael Strong Papers” at the Billy Rose Theatre Division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, located at Lincoln Center. That an actor so little known should have an official archive was my good luck, but it struck me as unusual.
I learned it was donated by his widowed second wife, an actress named Diane Shalet. Later, I’d also find that she was the key to the Newman film’s survival. After Strong died, she wrote a true-to-life novel—“Grief in a Sunny Climate” — about a woman who loses an actor husband named Michael.
Published in 1994, to warm reviews, it was a dark comedy in which the wife, who is also the narrator, struggles to find her way without Michael. I’ve worked with archives before, but never one so clearly assembled as an act of devotion.
Shalet left one box of playbills, reviews, photographs and letters that Strong received. One of them offers evidence that Strong decided (I think he and Newman may have made the move together) to seek advice from an unusual insider about how to market their film. It’s a single-spaced letter obviously written as a response to Strong, typed across two half-pages of New York Times stationery and signed by Howard Thompson.
He was the same Times writer who’d written the pan of Newman in “The Left Handed Gun” and mocked him for a screen personality split “between the Moscow Art Theater and the Grand Ole Opry.” He’d also written about Newman’s exclamation that he’d burn the Checkhov film if he didn’t like it.
Now, he’s clearly seen the finished version (it was a few weeks until it had its public screening), and he had loved it. His feeling for the film, his admiration for Strong and Newman, whom he sees as a fast-rising movie star — are all clear from his letter. Thompson, a cousin of the Times’ then-managing editor (soon executive editor), Turner Catledge, replied to Strong with a pointed effort to get the film distribution. Reporters are supposed to follow a professional ethos of detachment, though the Kennedy era was another time. But when Thompson gave business advice to filmmakers he was writing about, he was probably breaking even old norms.
Anyway, he wrote how busy he was in the pre-Christmas season, then said: “I have a couple of definite, however helpful, ideas about that excellent Chekhov short. No question it should be seen widely, which would mean a theatrical booking or circulation in the 16-millimeter field, which I know pretty well.”
He lamented the difficult business landscape faced by non-studio shorts, but gave the names of two top distributors — friends of his — who were successful at finding them audiences in commercial theaters, and at universities and other alternative venues. One contact he offered was a former silent film star named George K. Arthur. I did a little research that suggested why Thompson believed Arthur would be a good bet, though this doesn’t appear in Thompson’s letter: Arthur had produced a short film called “The Bespoke Overcoat,” which transposed Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat” into a film about Russian Jewish immigrants struggling to survive in London’s East End.
It had won the short film Oscar for 1956. “Actually, ‘Harmfulness’ is right up his alley…,” Thompson writes, adding, “I’d take it as a favor if you mention my name.”
He also urges Strong to use his name with Leo Dratfield, whose Contemporary Films went on to connect audiences to many of the leading artist-directors of the 20th-century. The “Leo Awards” for exceptional short films were named for him.
“I hope my assumption is right that in view of Mr. Newman’s other activities you would be serving as emissary for the picture,” Thompson wrote to Strong. I was curious about Thompson, well-connected film journalist. His lengthy Times obituary described him as a tall, lanky man, with a soft Southern accent, who loved smoking nonfiltered cigarettes in his Greenwich Village apartment. On Thompson’s walls hung photographs of Marlon Brando and other stars. “I can’t imagine a better one than either of you fine actors,” he gushed to Strong in his letter, predicting that he and Newman might find “immediate action at one of these two places.”
So what happened? We don’t know. The Strong papers are silent. They don’t hint about what Strong did with Thompson’s help. Did he follow through? Maybe he did and the film was rejected. But Arthur and Dratfield were leading short film impresarios, focused on short films the way certain art galleries show only drawings, and the way smaller concert venues stick to chamber music. Didn’t they agree with Thompson’s appraisal that Strong and Newman had done an excellent job of distilling Chekhov with the power of a short film?
I wonder if a fear of alienating the studios might have stopped the two men from taking on the film. Or maybe market conditions discouraged even big guns of little films.
Whatever happened, Strong stopped seeking a public life for the film. He buried it in his clothes closet in the family apartment in Queens.
THE FIRST CLOSET
It’s a flat brown box, a narrow-sided square a bit larger than a vinyl record album. Worn black canvas straps, secured with metal clasps, grip it closed. On one corner, in an angular handwriting in black ink, someone has written the title: “On The Harmfullness [sic] of Tobacco.” On another corner, a white label bears the title again, above the printed letters: “Michael Strong.”
Strong’s children recall glancing into that closet as the 1960s progressed and seeing it. Paul said: “I knew he was proud of it, but he never talked about what happened with Newman.”
The year that Newman put their film in his hands, Strong got a big stroke of luck: Kazan invited him to join Jason Robards Jr. and others in forming the Repertory Theater of Lincoln Center. “He was very excited about it, “ Ellen Strong told me. In 1962, the arts center already being built at the current midtown site — an Acropolis of the arts — was international news. The headlines also spoke of construction delays. The elite group of actors made its first home in a hipper setting, a temporary theater built on West 4th Street, called the ANTA Washington Square Theatre.
In October that year, Strong gave a live performance of “On the Harmfulness of Tobacco” for a black-tie fundraiser in suburban New Jersey. In a letter to his son, he wrote of it as “my contribution to Lincoln Center.”
In the company’s inaugural season, 1963–64, he acted in two Arthur Miller premieres: “Incident at Vichy,” about German round-ups of Jews in occupied France, and “After the Fall.” The New York Times’ Howard Taubman called “Vichy” (directed by Harold Clurman) “one of the most important plays of our time.” Strong played the dread-filled Jewish painter Lebeau, a quite-sizable role.
“After the Fall” (directed by Kazan) explored Miller’s relationship with Marilyn Monroe, and was buzzed about wildly everywhere. The heady mixture of uptown prestige and downtown cool churned together with a “super family feeling,” recalled David Amram, who wrote incidental music for both Miller productions. He recalled the vibrant parties — including one where Ralph Meeker (an intense Actors Studio actor who was also Garfein’s male lead in “Something Wild”) turned out to be “a great jazz vibraphonist, and we jammed for hours.” Another night, Jason Robards took his fellow actors to an Irish bar, and led them in “hours of endless Irish songs.”
Kazan, the theater’s artistic director, has written of his affair at the time with an actress who became his wife. Something like that happened with Michael Strong, who met Shalet, an actress-intern with the troupe, and left his wife to marry her. “He and Diane were in love, but it was also a fact that my mother wasn’t an actress,” said Ellen Strong, in a sad, reconciled tone. “My mother always said he worked hard, and admitted that he was very talented, even when she was mad at him, but Diane was 25 years younger than him and she idolized him.”
It was the 1960s — which means what? It was 1964, and I was 9, when my father suddenly put down his fork and knife at dinner and announced that the mother of one of my best friends had packed her bags and left her husband. This was a local news bomb like none before: A Jewish mother and wife of a Jewish father in my parents’ rather traditional suburban milieu had upped and left her husband, and my father stated her motivation: “For no better reason than that she wants a new life.”
My grandmother told me, “You can never understand someone else’s marriage, so don’t try.” In recounting Strong’s divorce, I won’t, but I repeat: It was the 1960s.
A lot was crazy in 1966, but the TV and film industries were booming. Strong and Shalet joined the exodus many New York actors were making to Los Angeles.
They lived in a small stucco house on Lloyd Place, a narrow street between Santa Monica and Sunset boulevards, in West Hollywood. The Strong divorce was wrenching for the family, and remnants of the pain are still palpable when talking to family members. But Strong’s children — and then, his grandchildren — visited him through the 1960s and ’70s. Ellen Strong stayed with the couple through the summers of her teens.
HIS WHOLE LIFE
Ellen Strong told me that her father brought the Newman film with him to L.A., and said she recalled seeing it in the closet of a small study where guests slept, surrounded by posters from Strong’s career.
Strong’s L.A. years saw plenty of good luck and dry spells. He was already 48 when he made his new start, relying on character roles — a featured male actor, as they call it — in several films. In “Dead Heat on a Merry-Go-Round,” he belonged to a gang led by James Coburn’s Eli Kotch that pulls off a heist at Los Angeles County Airport; and he played a sleazy used-car salesman in the thriller “Point Blank.”
The Strong papers hold a carefully handwritten list of 57 parts he played for TV and film. I don’t know if it’s complete, but the TV roles it describes include “deputy attorney general,” “a clown,” “father of a sick child,” “an accountant (brother-in-law of Maureen Stapleton),” a “rich salesman who gets taken,” a “homicidal psychiatrist,” and “a nice guy who is broke and steals.”
Going through the list, I thought of how often his characters — driving get-away cars or chasing them, taking or saving lives — must have flashed across my eyes when I was a teenager. “I’d watch him with friends when I was in college,” Ellen Strong, who is my age, told me. “Every time he was on, someone would turn to me and ask, ‘How is your father going to die this time?’”
He was on shows like “Hawaii Five-O,” “Mannix” and “The Streets of San Francisco,” often with a taut urban feeling he’d sharpened on the New York stage. He played more genteel types on “Marcus Welby, M.D.” and “Lou Grant.” I noticed how often the list showed him as a Russian: “the Russian,” or “a Russian spy,” or once “a red (sic) Army man.” His most lasting trace as an actor may be with “Star Trek” fans, for his one-time part as Roger Korby, a power-hungry android.
“One of my main memories of him from those years was his always diving into a telephone booth to call his agent, worried about getting the next role,” Ellen Strong said. She also told me that he had “more and more problems finding work. He was getting older, and aging is the bane of an actor’s existence. It wasn’t easy sometimes. There was more time between jobs.”
He continued to act in live theater, and performed “On the Harmfulness of Tobacco” again in 1968, as the curtain raiser for another play. Finding the playbill for the one-evening job, I wondered if the audience saw a mirror to the febrile chaos of late-1960s America in Ivan Nyukhin’s barely functional madness.
In 1975, Strong appeared in the “The Dybbuk” at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum, an updated version of S. Ansky’s drama of an exorcism in a Hasidic community. Strong was connected to it in a personal way by being onstage with Jo “Skipper” Davidson. In the 1930s, Davidson was Strong’s professor in the theater department at Brooklyn College, and became known for his concern for individual students and for bringing Jewish theater and storytelling into their lives.
The program for “The Dybbuk” made a point of noting that Strong had studied with him It was a family affair: Gordon Davidson, who just died, was Davidson’s son and ran the theater.
The play’s full title is “The Dybbuk, Between Two Worlds.” It presents the troubled divide between the religion-steeped past and secular assimilation, the same transition that members of the Natapoff family (and many families) had experienced in Russia, and then in America. The play’s history runs like a thread through Jewish progress from the Old World to the new. It was written in Russia — originally for Stanislavski and the Moscow Art Theatre, though it never had a production there — and got staged in Yiddish in New York in the 1920s. Now it was playing at the main theater complex in L.A.
Still, when Strong was onstage in “The Dybbuk,” in costume as a Polish Jew, did he feel connected to his Jewish identity? Strong’s childhood home felt “more Russian than Jewish,” his son told me, adding that the Natapoff family had no custom of Jewish practice or even celebrating holidays. Garfein said he’d had Strong and Shalet to his apartment for a few Seders.
I’ll let Ellen Strong have the next-to last word: “Acting was his religion.”
My final words on this question offer a reminder that these were decades of a specific evolution — the merging of Jewish and American identities. Mike Strong was an American Jewish actor, while other people of his generation, with widely varying interest in the specificities of Jewishness, were American Jewish poets, American Jewish teachers and American Jewish politicians. It seems so obvious a statement, until one considers the decades of change it had taken until immigrants and their children could feel less like strangers here.
Garfein had moved to L.A. in 1964, joining Newman to establish the Actors Studio-West, an outpost of the New York group. He also got together with Strong and Shalet, growing closer to Strong than they’d been in New York. Ellen Strong recalls his “very social” presence at parties of about 10 people, mostly actors, in the backyard of their house. “Everyone would be telling stories and laughing about scenes going wrong, actors getting injured while doing stunts,” she recalled.
Garfein and Strong went to star-studded Hollywood parties. “We didn’t go to stupid parties,” he said. “It was always Kazan or Strasberg’s parties.”
They spent frequent Sunday mornings together at Garfein’s apartment, in a high-rise along Sunset Boulevard, “talking mostly about what we were doing — theater, movies.”
Strong and Garfein were two Actors Studio friends whose relationship was rooted in Chekhov-like indirection, the fissures between what was and wasn’t stated, remembered and left behind. Garfein said he and Strong got as close “as brothers — I was the younger brother,” but the two never spoke about the deep shadows surrounding them.
Garfein told me he never spoke to Strong about his youth in the Slovakian town of Bardejov. In 1942, the family moved from Slovakia — a brutal Nazi ally that had begun deportations by then — to the relative safety of the Hungarian town where the Garfeins lived for two years. The family was swept up and placed on trains to Auschwitz in the massive Hungarian deportations of 1944.
In Auschwitz, Garfein told me, he lost 19 members of his family, including his mother and sister, on a single day, May 23, 1944; he was 13. His name was then Jacob Garfein, and his hair was red, not today’s airy white. (Iraj Abde, our mutual friend at Barzini’s Market, told me he buys 19 yahrzeit candles for Holocaust Remembrance Day each year.)
It’s hard to reconcile his carefully modulated voice, his hints of infinite grief, with the man I’ve watched stroll buoyantly down Broadway. He details labor camps and death marches across Europe largely to lay German rail lines. He names nine camps across Poland and Central Europe where he stopped before English forces set him free at Bergen-Belsen in 1945. He was sent to a Swedish recovery center and from there, in 1946, to New York.
On his iPhone, he carries photographs from a Swedish newspaper, showing him as a flesh-and-bones teenager in Sweden.
Michael Strong, meanwhile, never spoke of being Cecil Natapoff, the son of an immigrant mail carrier in the Bronx who read Shakespeare in Yiddish. By hiding in a cemetery, Strong’s father had survived a pogrom in 1903 that killed hundreds of Jews in a Belorussian town called Gomel; I learned this from Susan Strong, the family historian. Strong never spoke of his brother. Gus Natapoff was seven years older than he, a prodigy who gained admission to Harvard for graduate work in advancing areas of science and engineering at a time when admission quotas limited the number of Jews.
He drowned in a swimming accident at a Harvard pool in 1938, just as Cecil Natapoff was starting his acting career, three years before he changed his name to Strong.
Alan Natapoff, a Strong cousin, is a scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied the impact of space travel on the human body. He grew up taking pleasure in Michael Strong’s work, and believes that Strong’s relationship with his elder brother —“the family never recovered from his death” — at least partly drove his acting ambitions.
“I didn’t know he had a brother. I never heard the name Natapoff,” Garfein said. “To me, he was Michael Strong. I knew he was Jewish, but we didn’t talk about the past.”
Grant, who wrote about her Jewish family (and how she endured the Hollywood blacklist) in a memoir called “I Said Yes to Everything,” saw Strong and Shalet in L.A. She echoed Garfein, saying: “We didn’t talk about who we were like that. We were part of the tribe of actors. I never knew he was Cecil Natapoff. He never knew I was Lyova Rosenthal. Mike Strong. Lee Grant. How American can you get?”
But Garfein and Strong shared a delight in Yiddish theater stories. The Yiddish theater was in Strong’s blood. He sat in the 55-cent balcony seats of such theaters when he was a boy. Maybe when he stood on the stage of the Orpheum for Newman’s film, he was looking into a theater where he sat with his parents as a boy and felt the first stirrings of actor inspiration.
We know Strong worked on Broadway with Joseph Buloff, the Yiddish acting star who’d been brought from Europe by Maurice Schwartz, impresario-star of New York’s Yiddish Art Theater. It’s a good guess that Buloff gave him the following Schwartz story.
It seems Schwartz had a bad-great night playing Hamlet — in Yiddish, of course. He gave the gravedigger scene’s famous line — “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him…” — and blanked out. He looked to the prompter’s box, but it was empty, nature having called. Recovering his composure, Schwartz improvised: “Poor New Yorick, I know it….”
His New York immigrant audience went crazy, it seems, as he went on: “Oh, poor New Yorick, I know it. It is our city, New Yorick, the city of our struggles, but it also holds promise for better times….”
In 1968, Garfein directed Shalet and Strong in a short play about a honeymooning couple’s post-coital fight about the height of a great conductor. It was called “How Tall Is Toscanini?” Strong and Garfein met, and Garfein showed him his “big directing book” filled with analytical notes for his actors.
Strong didn’t want to see it, saying he’d find his part on his own.
Garfein asked him, “Well, what do you do?’
“He said: ‘I put the character on the ceiling. Then, I lay on my bed and talk to the ceiling. That’s where the character lives. I ask questions: What job do you have? Introduce me to your mother and father. What are you doing right now? And the character talks back from the ceiling, and I listen to what he says. So, use your big book after you see what I get from the ceiling.’”
From 1969 to 1970, Strong enjoyed an unusually visible career moment. Working in “Patton,” he wove through the film as the title character’s ever-helpful chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Hobart Carver, and flinched in pain when his boss declared his willingness to work with ex-Nazis.
With the film on screens nationwide, Strong toured the country in a key role in Miller’s play “The Price,” directed by Miller. He played the troubled middle-aged policeman Victor Franz, one of two brothers at war over an inheritance. Critics loved him. “Strong hovers between goodness and weakness,” wrote Dan Sullivan of the Los Angeles Times. The Washington Post’s Richard Coe judged Strong to be “strangely more perceptive than Pat Hingle’s original.”
On February 17, 1970, Kazan wrote him a letter that shows how acutely Strong’s admirers felt his unachieved potential. After seeing Strong’s glowing reviews from the road, the director wrote, “See, if you keep working, and you can stand the waiting, you finally get what you deserve.”
In Chicago, where “The Price” was onstage at the gorgeous old Studebaker Theater while “Patton” played on local screens, a Chicago Daily News reporter saw a good story in Strong as a veteran actor in the limelight. He interviewed him for a rare feature focusing on just him. Midway through it, Strong pulled out his wallet, removing a “fading, well-creased” clipping of The New York Times’s tiny rave of “On the Harmfulness of Tobacco.” He told the reporter that he wished this “teething ring” of Newman’s directorial skills “might be shown as part of a Paul Newman retrospective.”
It seems the star of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” never forgot his directing debut, either. Amram visited the actor in his dressing room one night a few years before his 2008 death. “All Paul wanted to talk about was that film with Michael Strong,” the composer told me. “He asked, ‘Do you have or do you know anybody who has a copy of our film, ‘On the Harmfulness of Tobacco’? I said, ‘No, I don’t.’ He said, ‘I want to see it again.’ And he looked melancholy.”
In Diane Shalet’s book, “Grief in a Sunny Climate,” Michael is already dying of stomach cancer. He’s still well enough to join the narrator-wife at a cemetery somewhere near L.A. to pick out his grave site. They find one and lie down on it, under a tree with a “cluster of dark green needles.” He tells her a Chekhov short story about a young actor who visits the grave of a dead stage star who has been forgotten.
Shalet’s fictional alter ego recalls how, referring to a once popular police series, her husband had once told her, “I wasn’t put on earth to do ‘Baretta.’”
And the narrator created by Shalet (who would die in 2006) explains: “Passionate about the theater, uncanny in his sense of truth; and chameleon, he could create the psychological and physical reality of another human being.” She recalls exercises that they’d used to enter a role: “Wrap yourself in the circumstances….Talk and listen with the illusion of the first time…. Acting is life chosen.”
Then there were the trials of the barely famous: “When we walked down the street he had the finger-snapping recognition of the public: “Aren’t you…? Click, click…. ”Aren’t you… Glenn Ford?’ Michael would mumble and ask me, ‘Are you disappointed I’m not as famous as Burt Lancaster?’”
Finishing that passage, I asked myself: Why, without the Newman film’s second life, would Michael Strong remain so buried by time? With all his talent and commitment, why didn’t he get another truly visible break in films? True, he was more of a character actor, but why didn’t he find the notice earned by others of that broad type, like Karl Malden, his closest actor friend, or Eli Wallach, with whom Strong’s daughter says he socialized?
Was he too versatile? Not sufficiently distinctive? Too much the good soldier, not assertive enough in some back-lot sense? And is it fair to raise a question about whether a fine actor might have won more success than the substantial degree he found? Isn’t the risk of going under-recognized in the big world’s eyes so rooted in the acting life that it’s misguided to second guess such a career?
The more often I watched “On the Harmfulness of Tobacco,” the more resonant the scene in which Chekhov’s character peers into that empty theater with baffled eyes became for me. I sensed the meaning it might have for many artists working in different fields who hold somewhere in their minds the question: “Will this work of mine be seen? Will it be heard?” The sight of Ivan Nyukhin — staring as his belief in his connection to others drains away —became a kind of symbolic moment that guided how I understood the film and the filmmakers. It’s only a reporter’s guess about the past, but I’ve become sure that both Strong and Newman constructed that scene of the unwatched actor on the Orpheum’s stage in 1959 to dramatize the possibility they lived with of making art and being answered with silence.
Still, while Paul Strong is convinced his father did what he did for mostly the sake of doing it, that he “cared more about art than stardom,” he wonders if he may have hidden frustration about his career. He asked me, “If Kazan admired him so much, why didn’t he give him a small part in ‘On the Waterfront,’ or another of his classic films?”
He wanted to know if I’d found any answers to the mystery.
I told him my reporting had only deepened it.
In fact, if there’s one person I’d like to trouble from the grave for this story — besides Newman and Strong — it’s Kazan. I’ve realized how closely the lives its major figures wove through his career. He directed Newman in the theater. Garfein considered him a mentor. Amram composed for him repeatedly. He directed Strong and worked with him at the Actors Studio.
None of those four men was blacklisted, but I can’t conjure Kazan’s memory without thinking of his having named names in the Hollywood blacklist era. His autobiography, “Elia Kazan: A Life,” is one of the most complex books of self-narration I have read: a thick, confounding knot of history-making talent and betrayal. Still, his affection for actors ran deep, as the Strong papers show.
Michael Strong died of stomach cancer on September 17, 1980. He was 62. On October 3, without addressing it to Shalet or anyone, Kazan wrote what looked like a condolence note. He wasn’t at Strong’s funeral — Malden, who called Strong “my dear friend” in his memoir, was there — so it wasn’t a eulogy. He signed its typed sentences, an elegy for one actor and for a world of New York actors who called the theater home: “At one time in my life, for perhaps 15 years, I had a family in the theater, a small family of actors, because I trusted them to understand me and give me everything of which they were capable.
“Mike was one of this family. And he was capable of a great deal. But beyond and above his work there was a unique quality of sweetness, of goodness, so rare today. Of course he was competitive — that’s a necessity as the world spins today; one pays for excessive naiveté — but this career orientation never dimmed the sterling light of his realest self. There was never a day that I went to rehearsal and found Mike waiting that I didn’t feel better for the sight of him.”
THE HARMFULNESS OF AVOIDANCE
Garfein was in Paris when Strong died. Shalet called him from L.A. with the news. She also called him — possibly just before or right after he died — to tell him that Strong had asked her on his deathbed to bring Garfein the Newman film. He’d asked that she fly to France and hand it to him in person.
Ellen Strong, who cared for her father with Shalet till the end, recalls no deathbed request. But she says her father was “very proud” of the film, and that Shalet visited Europe after he died, so “it is very plausible that it happened just as Jack Garfein says.”
In fact, the film box bears a peeling strip of tape on which printed black letters say “For Jack Garfein.”
“Diane told me, ‘Mike wants you to have this movie,’” Garfein told me. “That’s what she said.”
And he fell silent, the Garfein energy giving way to a hard, inward look.
I asked, “What happened next?”
His hand gave the air a lost-looking swipe. Silent, he stared at the space of pale sofa beside him and repeated: “She came to Paris. She said that on his deathbed, Mike said: ‘Give it to Jack. He’ll know what to do with it.’ I’m the one he called after Newman gave it to him. He trusted me. He knew I respected his work immensely. He knew I understood it was the best he could do, his pinnacle as an actor. I put it away somewhere in some closet, and I never looked at it again.”
I asked him what could have stopped him from watching a film that a dying actor-friend had told his wife to carry across the Atlantic to give to him, with a clear sense that his friend dreamed it could finally be seen when he was gone?
“I knew Paul had taken his name off of it,” Garfein answered. “I was afraid that, if Paul found it a disappointment, I’d find it disappointing, too. I respected Paul’s opinion. I wanted to remember the way Mike did it at the Actors Studio. I was there the first time he did it in a class, in front of Strasberg. Strasberg thought it was astonishing. Everyone did. I didn’t want that memory to be wiped out by something mediocre.”
After Shalet handed Garfein the box with the film in it, he stashed it in a closet in his Paris apartment, where it stayed, untouched, for another 34 years.
LOST IS NOT ALWAYS LOST
In 2012, while still living in Paris, the 82-year-old Garfein visited New York and met an articulate 37-year-old Russian-Jewish immigrant (“75% percent Jewish,” he said, with a teasing smile) named Natalia Repolovsky. Born in Sochi, the site of Russia’s recent Olympics, she grew up there and trained as a classical pianist in Moscow. She’s tall, with a willowy bearing, and states clear views in her Russian accent.
She met Garfein, far more diminutive, 45 years her senior, at a dinner party that also figures into a tangled tale they gleefully tell me, about a production they were supposed to see together earlier of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” — a story that ends with them seeing it separately and hating it.
In 2014, Garfein returned to New York to move in with Repolovsky, and brought with him a certain tired-looking brown box with an old film in it.
“We were unpacking,” she recalled. “And I saw it. Just laying there amid his things. I asked, “What’s that?” And he said, ‘Oh, it’s an old film of a play by Chekhov.’ And I asked, ‘What play?’ And he told me, and I had never read this play. I had never seen it performed. I said, ‘We have to see it.’”
Garfein hesitated, but Repolovsky insisted.
“I said, ‘We have to see it. Anything Chekhov, I will go and look,’” she recounted. “Even if it is bad, it is bad Chekhov!”
They faced a problem of time and technology. The film was locked onto the roll that Newman had handed to Strong and Shalet to Garfein, an artifact of the long era when Americans went to a movie theater to see a movie. So, Garfein called Lori Styler, a friend and a connection to his past.
Her father, Herman Styler, was a freelance journalist who wrote about Garfein’s brief talk at a United Jewish Appeal dinner shortly after he arrived in New York in 1946, at the age of 16. One of the first and youngest Holocaust survivors to emigrate here, he’s now one of the last who lives.
He placed the old film box with the print in it into her hands; she took it to be digitized, and brought it back with the film on a DVD disc. That evening, he nervously watched Repolovsky slide the DVD into place, and they watched as some visual static crossed the print. Credits rolled past the spot where Newman’s name might have been.
And Michael Strong came wandering down the street, dressed as Nyukhin. He stopped at the theater door, corrected his name, and starred in his slow storm of words and silences.
When the film ended, Garfein and Repolovsky told me, they sat “in silence,” contemplating the decades that it had been left to the dark. “I knew that I was wrong,” Garfein said. “Paul was wrong to be disappointed, if that’s what happened.”
“It was a revelation to me that an American actor could perform Chekhov in a way so Russian,” Repolovsky told me after I’d returned to watch the film again, this time with both of them. “This combination of misery and humor that is so big a part of Chekhov was so natural for him. It was not an American performance of a Russian play. I’ve seen those, and I have been disappointed a number of times.
“There is such a big difference between the two cultures. American culture is a success culture, always about winning, while Russia has a culture of elegant failures, and that is what this film is about. I watched Michael Strong, thinking that he gets it. He understands, and it comes from a very deep place.”
Repolovsky didn’t know, when we watched the Newman film that evening, that Michael Strong was a Russian Jew, that he’d grown up hearing the language in which Chekhov wrote his play. When I’d done that piece of reporting, I told her. Her eyes wide, she looked at me like I’d handed her a key and she’d unlocked — well, a closet. “See,” she said. “It makes total sense.”
Without Repolovsky’s émigré antennae, Garfein says, the film might have stayed lost. He had no plan to look at it. “I brought it back to New York, thinking I’d donate it to some institution, maybe Lincoln Center, and then I could take a tax write-off,” he said candidly. At one point, I told Garfein I’d found a Chekhov quote to be in order: “One must be a god to be able to tell successes from failures without making a mistake.” He smiled broadly, and asked me to email it to him.
Repolovsky is clear that this ungodly mistake should be corrected, saying the film “must be seen.” Garfein said he’s taken steps to make a film about the Newman film, one that will be “more than a documentary,” though he’s declined to elaborate.
But last April, the director of “Something Wild” visited a studio at TCM and helped the popular Robert Osborne host a screening of his best-known film. That visit resulted in early exchanges about a possible showing of the Newman film.
Osborne may end up introducing it in just the kind of Newman retrospective that Strong envisioned as a showcase for his Chekhov tour-de-force. “At this point, a Newman evening is what I have in mind,” TCM’s Tabesh said.
Still, I wonder: Who actually owns this orphanlike film? Such a film isn’t likely to bring a windfall, but who can profit from it? I asked this to Eric Schwartz, a leading attorney on film copyright issues. “Copyright law is often murky for unfinished or abandoned projects,” he told me.
Amram registered for copyright protection for his music; Newman didn’t take that step. Garfein — possession being nine-tenths of the law — owns the physical print, but copyright law governs intangibles, and that could thwart his right to profit from screenings of the imagery.
Amram said that he will “be a mensch, not a gangster kind of guy,” and isn’t looking for money because he wants only to “get this film seen.” Still, if the Newman family claims to own the copyright, it could create a problem, Schwartz said, especially if it has documents that place control in family hands. Tabesh said TCM lawyers have looked into the rights question deeply enough to feel “comfortable” with it, but he added, “We will check with the family.”
For members of the Strong family, watching TCM together is a tradition. They spoke in interviews about stars of the decades between 1930 and 1980 with whom Michael Strong performed, including Frederic March, Lee J. Cobb and Ethel Merman. When they watch Cobb, they’re aware he was one of Strong’s two favorite actors. The other was Paul Muni, with whom Strong probably never acted but whose disciplined intensity he emulated, and for whom Paul Strong is named.
Three generations of the Strong family spent the past summer on the Maine coast, in a house on an inlet that reaches out to the Atlantic and has been in the family for decades. There, Paul and Susan Strong have shared old movies with their two grown children — who call Michael Strong “Grampa Mike” — and two grandchildren. Michael, 9, is named for the actor. He and his sister, Sophia, 11, spent part of the summer at a theater day camp. When I mentioned his name to them, they said they hadn’t heard of Paul Newman. But they knew a lot about Michael Strong, and they’d heard about “On the Harmfulness of Tobacco.”
I made a last call to the family to tell Paul Strong about TCM’s plan to show the film. In his deep, quiet voice, he said: “Robert Osborne once mentioned my father’s name. He was about to screen a film with him in it. Then he suddenly said his name, and I’ve remembered that ever since.
“They’ve shown him in ‘Detective Story,” and we’ve watched that,” he added. “But if you ask me what it means that they will show this film after all this time? There really are no words for it.”
Allan M. Jalon won two 2015 Simon Rockower Awards for his Forward feature stories, “My Opa’s Story of World War One’s Other Fight” and “A New Jersey Tale of Two Alfred Doblins.”